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Anarchism and Marxism

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While anarchist communism and Marxism are two very different political philosophies, there is some similarity between the methodology and ideology of some anarchists and some Marxists, and the history of the two have often been intertwined. They share similar long-term goals (stateless communism), political opponents (conservatives and other right-wing elements), and structural targets (capitalism and existing governments). Many Marxists have participated honestly in anarchist revolutions, and many anarchists have participated honestly in Marxist revolutions. However, anarchism and Marxism have strong disagreements on issues including the nature of the state, the class structure of society, and the method of historical materialism. There have been violent conflicts between anarchists and Marxists, notably including the repression of anarchists by the Soviet Union and its supporters.

Arguments surrounding the issue of the state[edit]

Modern political scientists generally define the "state" as a centralized, hierarchical, governing institution which maintains a monopoly on the legitimate use of physical force, in keeping with the definition originally proposed by the German sociologist Max Weber in his 1918 essay Politics as a Vocation. This definition is accepted by nearly all schools of modern political thought other than Marxism, including anarchism. Marxism has a unique definition of the state: that the state is an organ of one class's repression of all other classes. To Marxists, any state is intrinsically a dictatorship by one class over all others. Therefore, within Marxist theory, should the differentiation between classes disappear, so too will the state.

However, there is some convergence of views. Anarchists believe that any state will inevitably be dominated by a political and economic elite, therefore becoming effectively an organ of class domination. Conversely, Marxists believe that successful class repression almost always requires a superior capacity for violence, and that all societies prior to socialism are ruled by a minority class, so that in Marxist theory any non-socialist state will possess the properties attributed to all states by anarchists and others.

The process of transition[edit]

The theory of the state leads directly into the practical question of what form the transition to the stateless society both anarchists and Marxists view as their end goal will take.

Marxists believe that a successful transition to stateless communism will require the repression of capitalists who would otherwise re-establish their own control, and therefore the existence of a state in some form run by workers (see dictatorship of the proletariat). Anarchists contend that the "workers' state" advocated by Marxists is a logical impossibility since, as soon as any group begins to govern by means of a state apparatus, they cease being workers (if they ever were) and become opressors. Anarchists support their argument by pointing to the undemocratic nature of the Soviet Union and other self-identified "Marxist" states, while Marxists support theirs by pointing to the defeat of anarchist-led revolutions such as that during the Spanish Civil War.

Therefore, anarchists wish to "smash" the existing state, replacing it immediately with workers' councils, syndicates or other methods of organization that are decentralized and non-hierarchical. Marxists, in contrast, wish to "seize state power," which means either gradually taking over the existing bourgeois state (social democracy), or smashing the existing state in a revolution and replacing it either with a new centralized state (Leninism, Trotskyism, Maoism), or with a system of workers' councils (council communism, autonomist Marxism).

The Marxist position blends into anarchism at one end of the spectrum, because anarchists disagree amongst themselves if a system of democratic workers' councils with a monopoly of violence constitutes a state or not, while Marxists disagree widely among themselves over the form of the dictatorship of the proletariat.

Political parties[edit]

The issue of seizing state power brings up the issue of political parties, which also divides anarchists and Marxists. Most Marxists see political parties as useful or even necessary tools for seizing state power, since they view a centrally coordinated effort as necessary to successfully defeat the capitalist class and state and establish a body capable of maintaining power. However, Marxists disagree on whether a revolutionary party ought to participate in bourgeois elections, what role it should have after a revolution, and how it should be organized. On the other hand, anarchists generally refuse to participate in governments, and so do not form political parties, since they view any hierarchically organized structure as having an inherent tendency to become authoritarian and oppressive. However, many of them do organize politically on the basis of direct democracy and federalism in order to participate more effectively in popular struggles and lead the people towards social revolution (by example and diffusion of ideas).

Violence and revolution[edit]

Another practical question closely related to the theory of the state is whether and how much violence is acceptable in order to achieve a successful revolution. Anarchists argue that all states are "illegitimate" because they all rely on systematic violence, and that while small-scale violence and even targeted assassination of criminal elites may be useful or necessary in some circumstances (see propaganda by the deed), mass violence against ordinary people - such as that practiced by Lenin and Trotsky against the Kronstadt Rebellion, by Stalin in the Great Purges, or by Mao during the Cultural Revolution - is never acceptable or justifiable. Most Marxists argue that large-scale violence is legitimate and so "just war" is possible, at least in the limited circumstances of collective self-defense, for example against an attempted coup or an imperialist invasion. Some (notably Stalinists) argue further that in general "the ends justify the means," so that in theory any amount of violence and bloodshed may be justified in order to achieve communism.

Arguments surrounding the issue of class[edit]

Both Marxist and anarchist class analyses are based on the idea that society is divided up into many different "classes", each with differing interests according to their material circumstance. The two differ, however, in where they draw the lines between these groups.

For Marxists, the two most relevant classes are the "bourgeoisie" (owners of the means of production) and the "proletariat" (wage laborers). Marx believed that the unique historical circumstances of industrial workers would incite them to organize together and seize the state and the means of production from the business class, collectivize them, and create a classless society administered by and for workers. He explicitly dismissed peasants, other "petty-bourgeios" small property-holders, and the "lumpen-proletariat" - the unemployed "underclass" - as incapable of creating revolution.

The anarchist class analysis predates Marxism and contradicts it. Anarchists argue that it is not the whole ruling class who actually has control over the state, but a minority which is part of the ruling class (and thus, defending its interests), but with its own concerns, particularly retaining power. A revolutionary minority taking over State power and imposing its will to the people would be just as authoritarian as the ruling minority in capitalism, and would eventually constitute itself as a ruling class. This was predicted by Bakunin long before the Russian revolution and the fall of the Soviet Union.

Also, traditionally anarchists have advocated that a successful revolution needs the support of the peasantry, and that it can only get it by redistribution of land between landless peasants and minifundists. That is, it explicitly rejects imposing state property of the land, although voluntary collectivization is seen as more efficient and thus supported (indeed, during the spanish revolution anarchists impulsed hundreds of collectivizations but only a tiny minority had all the land in the area, small peasants were allowed to cultivate their own land without hired labour).

Some modern anarchists (particularly pareconists) argue that there are three “classes,” which have relevance to social change - not two. Roughly, these are the working class (which includes everyone whose labor is involved in producing and distributing goods as well as much of the so-called “service” industry), the coordinating class (which includes everyone whose labor is primarily concerned with “coordinating” and managing the labor of others), and the elite or “owning class,” (which derives its income from it’s control of wealth and resources). They further contend that Marxism fails, and will always fail, because it creates a dictatorship of the coordinating class and that a "dictatorship of the proletariat" is a logical impossibility.

Key differences thus include the fact that Anarchists do not differentiate between peasants, lumpen, and proletarians and instead define all people who work for the profit of others as members of the working class (although there are different politics towards different social sectors of the working class), regardless of occupation; and that anarchists do differentiate between the economic and political elites who set policy and the business and government functionaries that carry those policies out whereas Marxists lump the two together and say that without one the other is not authoritarian (in an allegedly idealistic reasoning).

Other axes of oppression[edit]

The Marxist class analysis has consequences for how Marxists relate to the liberation movements of groups such as women, indigenous peoples, ethnic minorities, and cultural minorities (such as homosexuals). Marxists support such liberation movements, not only because they are worthy in and of themselves, but also on the grounds that they are necessary for a working-class revolution, which cannot succeed without unity. However, Marxists believe that attempts by oppressed people to liberate themselves will fail to achieve their full aims unless they are organized along class lines, because the bourgeois within each oppressed group will beyond a certain point betray its struggle, and because under capitalism, social power rests at the point of production.

Anarchists and others criticize Marxists for giving class priority in this way and in explaining the causes of historical change, arguing that to do so denigrates other oppressions, which operate with their own independent dynamics. Anarchists see all liberation movements by oppressed people as fundamentally legitimate, be they "proletarians", "peasants", or others, without needing to fit these movements into a predetermined schema for revolution. However, this position is not the only one throughout the anarchist movement, many anarchists believe that single issue struggles are extremely limited in their scope although they participate (as Marxists do) in them, trying to advance their positions and methods in an anarchist way.

Arguments concerning the method of historical materialism[edit]

Marxism uses a form of analysis of human societies called "historical materialism." At the crux of historical materialist analysis is the idea that people find themselves in a predetermined material world, and act to produce changes upon that world within the limits of what changes they can conceive of. More specifically, the fundamental economic relations of production are the driving force of history, explaining phenomena in the "superstructural" ideological and legal realms, at least in the long run. Underlying these processes is the idea that contradictions and opposed social groups will naturally form and drive social progress.

Marx derived his formulation of historical materialism from the earlier German philosopher Hegel's system of dialectics. This method works from the assumptions that any natural phenomenon is defined through contrast with other phenomena, that quantities can be viewed qualitatively, that precise understanding of imprecise phenomena is possible (comparable to many physical uncertainty principles). Marx and his coworker Friedrich Engels "turned Hegel on his head" and argued that these methods could be applied to human society in the form of historical materialism, so that classes can be studied by using contrast between, for example, owner and worker, or by taking quantities to make qualities, such as translating uneven distribution of private property to show class disparity.

Anarchists use a wide variety of tools of social analysis and some anarchists see value in historical materialism as a tool for social analysis. The Irish Workers Solidarity Movement, for instance, makes agreeing with the historical materialist method's value a central point of unity. Most anarchists, however, dismiss historical materialism as a pseudo-science based on untestable and unfalsifiable universal claims. Anarchists were among the first to criticise the dialectical materialist trend on this basis, and on the basis that it dehumanises social and political analysis and is not sustainable as a universal methodology.


A simple interpretation of historical materialism suggests that if Marxism is right about the class forces operating in capitalism, a successful working-class revolution is inevitable. Some Marxists, notably the leaders of the Second International in the late 19th and early 20th century, have believed this. However, the degree to which the revolution must be made by conscious forces has always been a matter of dispute among Marxists, with many arguing that Marx' famous statement that "I am not a Marxist" was a rejection of determinism, and the split was sharpened by the First World War, when the social democratic parties of the Second International supported their respective nations' war efforts. Many Marxist opponents of the war, such as Rosa Luxemburg, blamed the Second International's "betrayal" partly on its doctrine of the inevitability of socialism, which justified its attempt to reform existing capitalist states. Luxemburg put the alternatives for the future, instead, as "socialism or barbarism."

Since most anarchists reject dialectics and historical materialism, anarchists do not claim that revolution and the reorganization of society are inevitable, only that they are desirable.

Historical relationships between anarchists and Marxists[edit]


International Workingmen's Association[edit]

The International Workingmen's Association (the First International), at its founding, was an alliance of socialist groups, including both anarchists and Marxists. Both sides had a common aim and common enemies. But each was critical of the other, and the inherent conflict between the two groups soon embodied itself in an ongoing argument between Mikhail Bakunin, representative of anarchist ideas, and Karl Marx himself. In 1872, the conflict in the First International climaxed with the expulsion of Bakunin and those who had become known as the "Bakuninists" when they were outvoted by the Marx party at the Hague Congress.

Industrial Workers of the World[edit]

In the late 19th and early 20th century, many Marxists and anarchists were united within syndicalist movements for militant revolutionary trade unions, such as the Industrial Workers of the World (the Wobblies). The IWW was formed by the combination of Marxist trade union activists influenced by the De Leonist ideas of the Socialist Labor Party (USA) with a number of anarchist and syndicalist activists. Anarchists and Marxists cooperated successfully through the effective demise of the IWW in its original form in the 1920s.

Russian Revolution[edit]

Both anarchists and Marxists participated in the overthrow of the Tsar in February 1917 in the beginning stages of the 1917 Russian Revolution. However, a hostile relationship quickly developed between anarchists and Bolsheviks, so that anarchists generally opposed the Bolshevik-initiated transfer of power from the Provisional Government to the Bolshevik-led workers' councils, or soviets, in October 1917. Even the ensuing civil war pitting the soviets against the Tsarist White Armies did not reconcile anarchists and Bolsheviks; anarchists were involved in a series of violent uprisings against the Bolshevik-led government in 1918. Nevertheless, anarchist publications generally remained legal and some anarchist-led demonstrations, such as that at the funeral of Peter Kropotkin in 1921, were both legal and non-violent. However, at the end of the civil war, sailors at Kronstadt influenced by anarchists mutinied, demanding more political liberties, and were violently crushed by the Bolshevik Red Army. Anarchism remained illegal in the Soviet Union from this period until its 1991 collapse.

Attempted syntheses[edit]

A number of political ideologies and movements have attempted some degree of synthesis of the Marxist and anarchist traditions with the aim of a liberated workers society. These include the followers of Joseph Dietzgen in the 19th century, syndicalism, De Leonism, council communism, and Bordigism in the first half of the 20th century, and the Situationist International and Autonomist Marxism in the second half of the 20th century, all falling under the broad label of libertarian socialism.

Further reading[edit]

  • Barker, John H. Individualism and Community: The State in Marx and Early Anarchism. New York: Greenwood Press, 1986. ISBN 031324706.
  • D'Agostino, Anthony. Marxism and the Russian Anarchists. San Francisco: Germinal Press, 1977. ISBN 0918064031.
  • Dolgoff, Sam (ed.). Bakunin on Anarchism. Montreal: Black Rose Books, 2002. ISBN 0919619053 (Hardcover), 0919619061 (Paperback)
  • Paul Thomas, Karl Marx and the Anarchists. London: Routledge, 1985. ISBN 0710206852
  • Vincent, K. Steven. Between Marxism and Anarchism: Benoit Malon and French Reformist Socialism. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992. ISBN 0918064031

External links[edit]

See also[edit]

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